If you can figure out the 2014 Royals, well, you’re smarter than I am.
Two weeks ago the Royals hit their low point of the season, what Alcides Escobar called the low point of his time in Kansas City. They got swept at home by the Houston Astros, a team that had lost 106 games each of the last three years, which meant one of two things: 1) the Royals got swept – no, dominated – at home by a terrible, terrible team; or 2) the Astros are not a terrible team anymore, which meant that in his third year as general manager, Jeff Luhnow had accomplished what it took Dayton Moore until his seventh full season to do. The Royals then proceeded to fire their hitting coach, moving on to their sixth hitting coach since the end of the 2012 season.
From May 1st to May 28th, against a relatively easy schedule, the Royals had gone 10-16. They headed to Toronto to play the first-place Blue Jays, the beginning of a much more difficult part of their schedule.
Naturally, they’ve gone 9-4 since.
Which means I really should revise that opening sentence to read: if you can figure out the 2014 major league baseball season, well, you’re smarter than I am. Because if there’s one thing that the first 10 weeks of the season have taught us, it’s that you can throw out all your preconceived notions from before the season of which AL teams are good and which teams are bad, making my distinction between the easy and hard parts of the Royals schedule meaningless. About all we know is that the A’s are really good, the Blue Jays are better than expected, and that the Rays are a mess. Everything else is arguable.
Going into last night’s games, every AL Central team except the Twins had exactly 33 wins; 3.5 games separated first from last. Twelve of the 15 AL teams are within 3.5 games of .500. To put it another way, the 14th-place Boston Red Sox are just 6.5 games behind the 3rd-place L’Anaheim Angels. No one knows anything. The Astros aren’t that bad. The Tigers aren’t that good.
Ah yes, the Tigers. The Tigers, who started the year 27-12 and had me writing off the Royals – or any other AL Central team’s – divisional title hopes completely. It’s not that I expected the Tigers to play .692 ball the rest of the way – it’s that they had built such a lead that, if they were to simply go 62-61 the rest of the way, they would win 89 games. And I figured that a team that starts 27-12 – and has won the last three AL Central crowns – is probably going to do better than 62-61.
Instead, the weaknesses that were apparent in their roster prior to the season – and that they somehow rendered irrelevant for 39 games – finally showed up expecting payment with interest. The kryptonite of Dave Dombrowski’s SuperGM act – his inability to build a bullpen, and his strange willingness to overpay for veteran closers – has been brought out of hiding. Joe Nathan, who had a 1.39 ERA last year and got a two-year, $20 million contract this winter, has an ERA over 7. The Tigers’ bullpen as a whole has a 4.68 ERA, which is the worst in baseball. And their inexplicable hubris after Jose Iglesias went down – content to completely punt the shortstop position rather than sign the Stephen Drew that was just sitting there – has burnt them badly. Their shortstops have combined to hit .204/.267/.277 and are 8 runs below average defensely according to Baseball Info Solutions. Last week they turned to Eugenio Suarez, a prospect of modest status, after just 13 games in Triple-A. It might work; knowing the Tigers, it probably will.
But in the meantime, after starting the year 27-12 the Tigers went 6-16 before winning last night. Put it this way: if the Royals had won just one of the five games between the two teams, they would have been tied for first place before last night’s game. Against the other 28 teams in baseball, the Royals are 33-27 and the Tigers are 29-28.
Beyond the wins and losses, the Royals look to be in a much stronger position than they were two weeks ago. When Yordano Ventura walked off the mound on May 26th, I didn’t expect to see him on a mound again until July of 2015 or so. The Royals waved off the injury with almost shocking insouciance, and it was fair to be skeptical of their claims that Ventura only needed to miss one start. This is a franchise that has downplayed setbacks to minor league pitchers like John Lamb and Kyle Zimmer over and over again.
But if there are two guys in the organization who I trust, they are Nick Kenney and Kyle Turner, and sure enough Ventura was back on the mound ten days later. He’s won both of his starts since, although I think it’s relevant to point out that 1) he has struck out just four batters in 13 innings since returning and 2) according to his velocity charts, his average fastball velocity is down about 1 mph compared to before his elbow hurt. If that’s just a case of Ventura being a little more careful about airing out his arm, it’s no big deal. If that’s a sign that his arm isn’t 100%, that’s a problem. For now, it merits watching.
Equally concerning was Danny Duffy’s arm after he got bombed on May 28th with a fastball that dropped from his usual 94 mph average to around 92 mph. The Royals once again downplayed it as a “dead arm”, and once again subsequent events have proven them right – Duffy’s velocity returned to normal his next time out, when he allowed one hit in six innings. As important as this 9-4 stretch has been to the Royals, having their two best young starters apparently healthy – when the health of both of them was very much in question the last time I wrote – is even more important in the long run.
And while Ventura and Duffy appear healthy, they were healthy before their last start of May and the Royals were still 24-28. What’s made the difference is that the lineup, starting the day Dale Sveum was hired, has actually resembled a major league caliber offense. The Royals have scored 60 runs in 13 games with Sveum as their hitting coach, or 4.62 runs per game. In their 52 games before that they had scored just 197 runs, or 3.79 runs per game. I’m certainly not attributing improvement in that small a sample size to Sveum – but it’s a happy coincidence for the Royals, at least.
The end result is that a franchise which was teetering on a revolution two weeks ago – forget the fan base or deranged bloggers, even Ken Rosenthal had written an article hinting that a major shake-up might be necessary soon – has righted the ship. It’s symbolic that after enduring a six-game losing streak by Memorial Day for each of the previous ten years, the Royals have so far avoided such a fate this year. They came right up to the line – they lost five in a row and then needed extra innings in San Diego to avoid a sixth straight loss – but so far they’ve been able to stop the bleeding.
The Royals might be surprised to learn that the #1 complaint I received to my column in the KC Star was that I didn’t go far enough. When I wrote that, “Moore deserves a little more time to turn this season around — if the team goes on a stretch where it wins 15 out of 20, as the Royals did last year, they might lead the wild-card race and quiet their critics,” I heard from a lot of people that I was being soft on the front office for not demanding they clear out their desks immediately. The criticisms were neatly summed up by Scott McKinney’s comment at the very end of this thread:
“So at the end of June, the Royals will probably be a little higher in the standings than the[y] are now, and Rany will still not be calling for Moore to be fired. I admire his restraint.
In all honesty, Rany is being as patient, and thus as incompetent, with regard to Dayton Moore as David Glass has been.”
Well, it’s not even the middle of June yet, but the Royals are alone in second place, 2.5 games out of first place and a game out of the wild card, and guess what, Scott? I’m still not calling for Moore to be fired yet. And you know why? Because they’re alone in second place, 2.5 games out of first place and a game out of the wild card. That’s the way the world works. After eight years, Moore needs to be judged by the performance of his team today rather than the potential of his team tomorrow. But at least at the moment, the performance of his team doesn’t merit a housecleaning.
I’m not entirely convinced that will remain the case. The Royals are above .500 but have been outscored by eight runs on the season; more concerning, they have scored more runs than expected from their underlying performance and they have allowed fewer runs than expected from their underlying performance. According to Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted standings page, the Royals second-order winning percentage – what their winning percentage should be based on the number of singles, doubles, homers, walks, etc. they’ve both scored and allowed – is .444. That’s terrible – the equivalent of a 72-90 record. There may be good reasons for the discrepancy between how the Royals have played and how they should have played, but I remain leery that the Royals can play better than they have, which is something they’ll need to do if they want to reach the playoffs.
But for the moment, at least, they’re in it to win it. Talk of trading James Shields has stopped, although there are still seven weeks until the trading deadline. Speaking of Shields, as I am legally required to bring up The Trade at every opportunity, I should link to Sam Mellinger’s excellent piece here, which I almost entirely agree with. To wit: it’s still too early to declare a winner. If the Royals go to the real* playoffs this year – with Shields starting Game 1 of the playoffs (or winning the Wild-Card game) and Wade Davis the eighth-inning shutdown option, I will happily declare victory for the Royals. Ending a 29-year playoff drought is a legacy no one can take away from Dayton Moore.
*: As I’ve said before, if the Royals reach the Wild-Card game but lose – particularly if Shields starts the game – the legacy of the trade becomes much more ambiguous. Is half a playoff spot still a playoff spot? How you answer that will determine how you view the trade.
But can I just say that people who keep harping on Wil Myers’ performance (or lack thereof) this season are missing the point? If Myers were raking, but the Royals were running away with the AL Central, most people would say that the trade was worth it – and they’d be completely justified. The Royals made the trade not to get rid of Myers, but to acquire Shields, and they acquired Shields with one purpose: to make the playoffs in 2013 or 2014. That’s why I get so rankled when the Royals distance themselves from those playoff expectations. Myers didn’t hit well at all this year – although he still has a higher OPS than Nori Aoki! – and then hurt his wrist, so 2014 may well be a lost season for him. But in 2015, he’ll be a 24-year-old starting right fielder for the Rays, and the Royals’ starting right fielder will be…uh, we’ll get back to you on that.
Wade Davis has been as dominant as any reliever in baseball this year…but keep in mind that to acquire Aoki – to replace Wil Myers’ bat in the lineup for just one season – the Royals surrendered Will Smith, who has a lower ERA (0.88) than Davis (1.23). I’d rather have Davis too – but after this season, the Royals will have to pay Davis $25 million for the next three years if they choose to keep him. Smith, meanwhile, won’t be arbitration-eligible until 2016. I highly doubt that the Brewers would trade Smith for Davis straight-up today.
We’re getting deep into the weeds here, and we haven’t even mentioned Jake Odorizzi. I’m not trying to build a trench around my position that the Royals got screwed in the trade. On the contrary: I’m acknowledging that if they make the playoffs this year, and if (as is likely) they would not have made the playoffs with Myers and Odorizzi, the trade may prove to be everything the Royals expected it to be, and I may owe Dayton Moore a huge apology. But that depends very little on what Myers is doing in Tampa Bay, and very much on what the Royals are doing in Kansas City.
Two weeks ago, what they were doing was getting their ass kicked by a team that’s five years behind them in their rebuilding process, and harsh criticism was warranted. Today, it’s not entirely clear what the Royals are doing. Which is a good thing. They’ve got a little more than three months to justify the trade. More importantly, they’ve got a little more than three months to bring playoff baseball back to Kansas City for the first time in a generation. If they do the latter, I’ll suck up my pride and admit I was dead wrong about the former.